Just one day after we detailed a measure that would free 880 pre-trial inmates in New York City along with giving them Mets tickets, gift cards and other parting gifts, Oklahoma used commutations to move one step closer to shedding its distinction as the state with the highest incarceration rate in the United States.

Yesterday, 527 people serving ‘low-level drug and nonviolent offenses’ went free in what Oklahoma lawmakers are calling the largest single-day commutation in both state and U.S. history.

The commutation is a success for criminal justice reform efforts in a state that has a long history of harsh sentencing practices and high incarceration rates.

It’s also evidence of the Republican-dominated legislature’s willingness to move closer in line with most voters who favor a less punitive approach. The historic commutations come amid nationwide efforts to reduce punishment of low-level crimes and move the U.S. prison system in a more rehabilitative direction.

Criminal justice reform advocates like Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, agreed that the commutation news signaled a change but cautioned that the road ahead will be a long one.

“From the 30,000-foot view, the criminal justice landscape is light-years ahead of where it was three or four years ago,” Kiesel told The Washington Post. “It would have been impossible before State Question 780 passed in Oklahoma; that signaled to lawmakers there was an appetite for reform.”

The Pardon and Parole Board voted unanimously Friday to recommend commutation for 527 nonviolent offenders serving time for crimes that would no longer be considered felonies if charged today. Gov. Kevin Stitt said he intended to sign off on the recommendations Friday afternoon, allowing most of those individuals to be released from prison Monday.

“More than 450 Oklahomans are getting a second chance today,” Stitt said Friday after the board meeting, surrounded by Pardon and Parole Board staff and members, legislators and other state leaders.“They’ve got a lot of paperwork to do. I’ve got to sign 450 of these this afternoon.”

Sixty-five of the inmates recommended for commutation have detainers, so not everyone will be released next week.

House Bill 1269, which took effect Friday, made retroactive criminal justice reforms that reclassified simple drug possession as a misdemeanor and increased the felony dollar threshold from $500 to $1,000 for felony property crimes.

Instead of automatically granting retroactive relief to eligible inmates, state lawmakers directed the Pardon and Parole Board to establish an accelerated, single-stage commutation docket for people in prison for crimes that have been reclassified as misdemeanors.

The board considered 814 cases Friday.

Board members voted to deny single-stage commutation relief for inmates who had records of serious misconduct, had a victim’s protest letter or a registered victim on file, had received a district attorney protest or would be required to register as either a sex offender or a violent offender.

On Friday, the first day the retroactive law took effect, 814 prisoners applied for commutation consideration, according to the state Pardon and Parole Board. The state said the mass commutations will save taxpayers an estimated $11.9 million based on costs projected if the eligible prisoners served their full sentences.

In some cases, prisoners were able to secure state ID cards or driver’s licenses before their release; though crucial, such documentation can be difficult to obtain for people returning from prison. The effort, Stitt said, was coordinated by a mix of state, local, nonprofit and faith groups.

With most Oklahoma voters supportive of criminal justice reforms, lawmakers in the heavily red state where Republican legislators outnumber Democrats 3 to 1 are increasingly embracing a platform long associated with progressives.

Kris Steele, a Republican who served in the state legislature from 2000 to 2012, is now the executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. In his view from within the state’s Republican Party, Steele said criminal justice reform was barely on the radar during his time in the legislature.

“For the first three or four elections, the methodology was to run a platform of ‘tough on crime.’ Political consultants advised that. There were even predesigned mail pieces with that messaging,” Steele said.

By contrast, during the most recent election cycle, Steele couldn’t recall a major Republican candidate who ran on a punitive platform.

“I think the vast majority of candidates and incumbents ran a corrections reform message,” he said.  

Steele said he suspects a few factors are behind the Oklahoma Republicans’ embrace of criminal justice reform.

“One is a realization that over-incarceration is the definition of inefficient government, producing neither increased public safety nor less crime for the cost. There’s also the issue of faith: The messages of criminal justice reform align with the same values at the center of Christianity, such as redemption, grace, forgiveness and second chances,” he said.

But a third factor Steele identifies is starker: Oklahoma’s incarceration rate is more than 10 times that of Canada, according to the Tulsa-based nonprofit think tank Oklahoma Policy Institute, meaning more than 1 in 100 Oklahoma adults is locked up at any given time.

“The sad reality is, we’ve reached a point of saturation, given our high incarceration rate: If it’s not your loved one, chances are, it’s a friend,” Steele said. “The proximity, in many ways, has changed people’s thinking.”

That’s not to say Oklahoma will be pivoting hard toward reform with any speed.

Steele noted that local district attorneys and law enforcement and their allies are among the staunchest, and most effective, holdouts.

“They tend to be very effective in the legislature in thwarting or slowing these [reform] efforts,” he said.

That is understandable. Law enforcement officials and DA’s are the people who arrested and prosecuted the individuals currently behind bars. While recidivism rates in Oklahoma are relatively low compared to most states, cops and prosecutors know that roughly 1 in 5 will commit future offenses and wind up back in jail.

Rose Ortiz was among those outside the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud to welcome a loved one home. Ortiz’s daughter, Calista, was released and reunited with her husband and five kids, including a baby whom she gave birth to in prison.

Ortiz had doubts when she heard her daughter would be eligible for early release. Calista had been unsuccessful in previous attempts to get a reduction in her roughly seven-year sentence for drug possession even as she helped other women successfully file for their own early-release petitions.

“When you hear that, you wonder, ‘Is this really going to happen?’” Ortiz said.

Ortiz saw her daughter outside of prison walls for the first time in two years.  

“We’ve missed having her around as a mom, sister and daughter,” Ortiz said. “When you have a little baby, every day is important. Every week, every month is important. She’s had to miss a lot.”

Not to sound heartless or callous, but she didn’t HAVE to miss a lot. She broke the law and was caught, convicted and sentenced. There was a choice involved and choices have consequences.

The drug possession docket contained the names and dispositions of 793 inmates who applied; while the property crimes docket lists 99. 

Here’s what’s going on in New York, in the meantime.

Nearly 900 incarcerated people in New York City could be celebrating Christmas early courtesy of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a plan to quietly free them before the state’s bail-reform law goes into effect next year.

A spokesperson for Cuomo said:

“Fearmongering aside, we understand there are concerns about implementing these landmark reforms and we believe it must be done appropriately and effectively.”

Fearmongering?

New York’s Division of Criminal Justice Services released data in October of 2018 that shows the recidivism rate in New York is right at 66%. That means that, of the 880 inmates expected to be released early in NYC, 581 of them are most likely going to end up committing additional crimes after there release.

It is understandable to be concerned over the latest pro-criminal legislation coming out of New York.  That concern does not equate to fearmongering; it equates to common sense. 

Just in case early release wasn’t enough of a gift, Mayor Bill de Blasio is promising to follow up with even more presents for these accused criminals, by giving them free baseball tickets, movie passes and gift cards to encourage them to return to court, sources familiar with the program said.

“You’re literally rewarding them for committing a crime,’’ said a disgusted senior staffer in Manhattan Criminal Court.

And we all know how well conditions of release are followed. What the Mayor is about to find is that he bought a bunch of gifts for people that will not show up for their court dates. Some could potentially sell their tickets and then no-show.

The proposed early jail release is associated with a law that Cuomo signed in the spring to eliminate bail for defendants charged with a number of misdemeanor and felony crimes.

The more than 400 offenses include such heinous acts as criminally negligent homicide, aggravated assault on a child under 11 and selling drugs on or near school grounds, according to a memo being circulated by prosecutors across the state and obtained by The New York Post.

The law goes into effect Jan. 1 but it will be retroactive — meaning inmates who are already locked up on such cases can apply to have their bail lifted and to be freed.

In the Big Apple, court officials estimate that 880 prisoners — about 16 percent of all pretrial detainees housed by the Department of Correction — will be eligible for the get-out-of-jail-free cards.

To avoid a deluge of applications in the new year, the state Office of Court Administration has held a series of conferences where officials outlined four ways for judges to deal with the new law, according to a source familiar with the situation.

One proposal would allow judges to issue pre-emptive orders that “comply with the new statute before its effective date,” the source said — and the OCA is already prepping for the move.

OCA spokesman Lucian Chalfen said court and city officials had “begun the unprecedented process of discharge planning and developing the complex logistical process of releasing those defendants.”

You want to know why it is unprecedented? It’s because it is stupid. It has never been done before because most people use logic and common sense, and understand what a catastrophe this type of initiative will be.

“To that end, a plan is being developed to stagger the release of defendants starting in mid-December,” Chalfen said. “If a judge, however, feels that it was necessary to make certain [release] orders effective Jan. 1, they certainly retain the discretion to do so.”

The other options discussed at the conferences include taking a wait-and-see approach, scheduling Jan. 2 hearings for everyone who applies — or issuing release orders that take effect on Jan. 1 or 2, the source said.

The Legal Aid Society, which provides government-funded representation for indigent criminal defendants, has instructed its lawyers to file motions on behalf of their eligible clients immediately and to seek their release as soon as possible.

Most judges “have been reluctant to go along” so far, but Legal Aid hopes that will change “with some guidance from OCA,” said Marie Ndiaye, supervising lawyer of its Decarceration Project.

“It is completely arbitrary and cruel to hold people pre-trial now who will have to be released come Jan. 1,” Ndiaye said. “Early implementation will help ensure that the Office of Court Administration and the Department of Correction are not overwhelmed, and it will also ensure that those New Yorkers being released have a discharge plan and are connected to services that they need.”

State Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R-Geneva) was less than pleased upon learning about the early-release plan.

“Any attempt to accelerate this process makes a bad situation even worse, threatens public safety and is a disservice to law-abiding citizens,” he said. “With every law that New York Democrats roll back, our streets become less safe. Their platform that caters to convicts and protects hardened criminals puts the rest of us in danger.”

What happens when the pre-trial offenders are back on the street?

For starters, they get to take in a Mets game as the guests of the city, the Mayor and the not-for-profit Criminal Justice Agency, will be offering tickets and gift cards to ensure that inmates who get sprung don’t skip their court dates, sources said.

A law-enforcement source noted that the tickets would be for the Mets — whose games are in considerably less demand than the Yankees, thus less expensive.

It’s unclear how much taxpayer money will be spent on the rewards, which echo an earlier de Blasio program that offered low-level criminal defendants $15 Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards to fill out questionnaires about their experiences in court.

That criminal-incentivizing initiative cost taxpayers $800,000.

NYPD cops were outraged over the perks being offered to alleged criminals.

“It is bad enough that [suspects] have to be reminded [to show up to court], but to be rewarded is ludicrous,’’ a Queens cop griped.

A Brooklyn officer said of the baseball games:

“What do the victims get — to watch it on TV?’’

A Brooklyn cop added:

“What does that say about the Mets? Are Yankees tickets reserved for murderers? I am sure it will only be a matter of time before they get out on ‘no bail’ too.”

A rep for the mayor’s office said in an e-mail to The Post on Sunday, that the city has a “nationally recognized, award-winning Supervised Release program’’ which “has produced consistently high rates of return to court, which we expect will continue after the State law goes into effect.”

And let’s not forget California.

The same governor who made national headlines last month for signing a bill allowing murderers and rapists to serve on juries just basically told the country that it’s okay to break certain laws, as they go along with the state’s narrative.

In a completely unprecedented move, California Governor Gavin Newsom just pardoned three convicted criminals in order to try and block their deportation.

Fox News reported that all three men involved in the situation broke the law as teenagers or adults and have been convicted of their crimes. Those involved hailed from El Salvador, Iran and Ecuador. 

gavin_newsom_california_governor

Gov. Gavin Newsom (Wikipedia)

 

Newsom says that because each of the men have served their sentences and have taken steps to rehabilitate themselves, they shouldn’t have to face deportation.

The governor’s office released a formal statement addressing the decision.

“The Governor regards clemency as an important part of the criminal justice system that can incentivize accountability and rehabilitation, increase public safety by removing counterproductive barriers to successful reentry, and correct unjust results in the legal system,” the office’s statement read. 

But according to Fox’s report, Newsom’s pardon doesn’t completely free the men from facing deportation. Instead, the move just takes their past crimes off the record for consideration during deportation proceedings. 

The governor’s office says that the men came into the country legally as children and now all reside in Los Angeles County. Despite their legal status, federal officials can still move to deport known criminals for their actions at any time.

Let’s take a closer look at the list of crimes that the men are accused of committing on American soil.

38-year old Victor Ayala was convicted of felony robbery at age 21 after he stole from an electronics store and assaulted a security guard. Ayala also had four prior convictions for theft and a hit-and-run. 

 

41-year-old Thear Seam was convicted of robbery after stealing a man’s wallet and backpack when he was 18. A year later he was convicted of additional offenses after leading police on a high-speed chase in an attempt to help a fellow car thief avoid being arrested.

42-year-old Arnou Aghamalian was convicted of helping his cousin set a club owner’s car on fire after they got into an altercation. Aghamalian was 22 at the time.

While all three men are not completely off the hook for potentially being deported, their past offenses have been wiped from their slate. Newsom swears that each of the men has left their past lives of crime behind.

In addition to those pardons, the California leader also commuted the sentence of 59-year-old Curtis Reynolds, who has dedicated his life to helping those struggling with addiction since being convicted of six felony drug distribution charges, as well as two men serving life sentences for armed robbery and attempted murder. 

Each of the commutations allow for the inmates to enter parole hearings.

Newsom is apparently a huge believer in second, third and maybe even fourth chances. 

In another sign that the inmates are running the prison, the governor of California approved “The Right to a Jury of Your Peers”.

It’s a move that will allow people with a prior felony conviction to serve on juries in California for the first time.

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Prior to this, there was a law in California that excluded felons from jury service.  Local media backed the legislation, saying it’s not right to prevent someone with a graffiti or drug conviction from serving on a jury.

That’s why they introduced SB 310.

The legislation, signed into law by Governor Newsom, allows a person with a prior felony conviction to serve on a jury.  That is only unless the person is on parole or probation, or a registered sex offender for a felony conviction.

The state Assembly approved the legislation on a 47-26 vote.  The Senate gave its final OK on a 29-10 vote.

“SB 310 will ensure that Californians can be tried by a true jury of their peers,” said the bill’s author.

That’s Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), who released a statement on the legislation.

“Currently, 30% of African-American men living in California are denied the basic civil right to serve on a jury. SB 310 will right that wrong.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, along with many other social justice warrior groups, were thrilled. 

Among those who applauded it was Brendon Woods, Alameda County’s Public Defender.  He wrote a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle about it:

“During my 20-plus years as a public defender in California, I have handled thousands of criminal cases. I can’t tell you how often I’ve sat at the defense table with a young African American client who was excited to prove his innocence, only to see his enthusiasm replaced with hopelessness and dread once he saw the jury,” he said.

He wrote the op-ed in July:

“It’s difficult to tell a young man that he shouldn’t feel defeated when faced with the fact that not a single person who will be deciding his future looks like him. He is immediately confronted with the reality that he will not be getting a jury of his peers.”

He said this was a personal vendetta for him.

“As an African American male, I am faced with the harsh reality that if I am ever arrested and charged with a crime, under current law, it is almost guaranteed that I will not have a jury of my peers,” he wrote. 

Obviously many are against SB310.  Those fighting against it argued that people with felony convictions are too biased to ever serve on a jury.

Even California district attorneys lobbied against the bill, saying they didn’t want sex offenders and people on felony probation to serve.

But according to Skinner’s office, once the bill was amended to exclude those categories of people, the prosecutors dropped their formal opposition.

California joins more than 20 states which allow people with prior felony convictions to serve on a jury, including states such Colorado, Illinois, Maine, and Oregon.

Only Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma will still have lifetime bans on jury service for people with felony convictions.

Proponents of SB 310 say it won’t interfere with the right of prosecutors, public defenders, and judges to reject jurors… nor would it prohibit the “use of a preemptory challenge to remove a prospective juror from the jury pool.”

Last month, California Governor Gavin Newsom commuted the sentences of 21 violent offenders.  Among them were four men who have convictions related to murders in Sacramento County.  

The four who were convicted of separate murders in the 90’s were Jacoby Felix, Crystal Jones, Andrew Crater and Luis Alberto Velez.

All of them, who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in Sacramento County, have now been granted commutations by Newsom.

The decision for them and 17 other state prisoners was announced Friday in a statement from the governor’s office.  Their press release explained the reasoning for commuting their sentences.

“The Governor carefully reviewed each application and considered a number of factors, including the circumstances of the crime and the sentence imposed, the applicant’s conduct while in prison and the applicant’s self-development efforts since the offense, including whether they have made use of available rehabilitative programs and addressed treatment needs,” said the statement.

Out of the 21 commutations, 15 involved inmates convicted before the age of 26, and so Newsom says youth offender status was another important factor considered.

The four convicted in the murders were all between ages 18 and 26 at the time of their crimes.

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